On anniversaries

“Are you disappointed?” he said, as we heaped pineapple fried rice onto our plates. “Do you feel like this is not special enough?”

My partner and I celebrated our first relationship anniversary last weekend. I’d never celebrated an anniversary before, and, while it did not feel particularly special to be sitting at my kitchen table in yoga pants eating Thai food, I wasn’t sure that I really cared about specialness. “What’s really the point of an anniversary anyway?” I asked through a mouthful of pad see ew, “To say we managed not to break up this year?”

“No. It’s like: ‘Hey, you’re special to me. Let’s celebrate this thing we created,'” he said.

It’s not that I needed him to defend the idea of an anniversary to me (though I appreciated his willingness to do so), it’s that sometimes I feel it’s my job to maintain skepticism when it comes to the rituals we associate with romance. We all seem to have a lot of ideas about what you’re supposed to say or do in love and these ideas have the power to make us feel either smug or inadequate–or, absurdly, both at once. And I just wanted to tread thoughtfully toward the anniversary celebration.

“I think I should write something about anniversaries,” I said. “People don’t really talk about how weird they are.”

“Are you gonna write about this?” my partner asked, glancing around at the takeout containers propped between haphazard stacks of books.

“Of course.”

“Ugh.” He slumped. “I knew I should’ve tried harder.”

It took me a while to pinpoint why anniversaries feel weird to me: I think it’s the implication that the real value of a relationship is in its duration. Don’t get me wrong, I am genuinely impressed by people who manage to stay committed for decades. And I love almost any excuse for a celebration (as evidenced by the fact that I just typed the phrase “pick up dog cake” into my calendar–Roscoe and I have spent a full six years together!). But duration is rarely the best indicator of a relationship’s success. Certainly most of us can cite long, miserable marriages.

I spent the entirety of my last serious relationship advocating for special occasions: birthdays, holidays, Valentine’s Day. Why couldn’t we make a big deal out of things just once? And now, somehow, I have become the one who says, “Why can’t you eat take out in spandex on an anniversary?” Obviously you can and we did, but it felt problematically mundane. So we shook off our Halloween hangovers, changed clothes and went out for cocktails and dessert.

It was a nice night. Still, I never quite escaped the feeling that there was something romantic that I should be doing or saying. Over chocolate mousse I fretted that there was an appropriately sentimental note that the evening hadn’t quite hit. It’s probably this exact feeling that all those people who are “just not really into” anniversaries are trying to avoid.

Maybe I should’ve said something to him about how grateful I am for his unfailing kindness. I know I’ve already said something along these lines to a bazillion strangers on the internet (in both type and video, no less) but maybe I should’ve told him. It’s so nice to know (not to hope or to believe–to know) that even when we disagree–even when we almost break up–he is kind. But there is more to it than a nice feeling. Love is an inherently risky proposition. Writing about love is often uncomfortable. Knowing my partner will be kind, that he is in fact kind to his core, is part of what makes this risk feel manageable to me. All of this is what I should’ve said.

Instead, we found ourselves in a discussion of the role of happiness in a relationship: Is it your job to make your partner happy?

Me: No.

Him: But your happiness is important to me.

Me: I think our relationship is going well right now because I’m not trying to make you happy–because I’ve actually made a conscious effort to stop trying to please you.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–about wanting to please people. It’s a habit I’m trying to temper.

I think it took me an entire year to find ease in this relationship. Partly this is due to the fact that this has been a strange year for me–nothing has felt quite normal or predictable. And partly it’s due to the fact that love never feels normal or predictable to me. It seems to involve a lot of pleasing.

I thought a sense of ease would be the natural by-product of our month-long August road trip. I thought you couldn’t possibly spend thirty days sharing a car and a tent without feeling entirely comfortable by the end of it. But that wasn’t true. I still had this lingering self-consciousness about the relationship. I sometimes looked in the campground bathroom mirror and wondered, ‘Does he think I look less pretty without mascara?’

There was so much to manage: the constant putting up and taking down of the tent, mapping and remapping the route, and the emotional and physical risks of giving a talk and going rock climbing, all of which made it impossible to step out of the immediacy of each day. I was stuck in the moment in a way that did not match the romantic idea one has of road trips. I felt intensely vulnerable–all while posting gorgeous photos of various national parks on Instagram, of course.

just another national park, you guys

just another national park

But then we came home and I spent the next day totally alone and I was shocked to see how good it felt. It was as if I’d come back to myself–only without having noticed that I’d been gone. I could breathe. I felt how deeply I love aloneness, the spaciousness of my wandering mind.

And maybe this is my point: I’m not good at knowing or voicing what I need. I’m much better at figuring out what other people need, what they want, what they want from me, who they think I should be. This week I came across this article on Salon, and started thinking about likability, about pleasing. So much of the ritual connected to love is about pleasing, about performing the role of partner to someone else’s exact specifications. And organizing our lives to match some sense of how we believe they should be.

On some level I think questions about our obligations to others’ happiness are deeply linked to gender. Girls are taught to please. To be pretty. To smile at strangers. To say thank you. I was a good student because I was very good at intuiting who adults wanted me to be. (And I am sometimes annoyed at my own students because they can’t–or won’t–do this.) But I am having some doubts about the value of pleasing. For one, pleasing people has never made me a good life partner.

We really took our time deciding to start this relationship so I think when we did commit, it felt serious—at least it did for me. I remember a friend of mine saying that when she first got together with the man who is now her husband, she thought: well at least that’s out of the way, meaning the whole finding a life partner business. But it wasn’t. It would be years before they got married—years that included a long distance relationship, a break up and a lot of international border crossings. I also thought something like this when I started this relationship after years of online dating: life partner box checked.

But this, too, has not been so simple.

What should your relationship look like after a year? If not buying a condo, shouldn’t you at least be flipping through furniture catalogues? And sharing a Google calendar? Referring to the dog as “ours”? Shouldn’t you know exactly what you want?

“Do you ever talk about the future?” someone asked me in a phone interview that week, referring to my status with that thirty-six questions guy. “We do,” I said. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”

One of the things I’m writing about in my book is this idea of scripts–that there is a way a life should go. We have micro-scripts (for what you say over anniversary desserts) and macro-scripts (for how a relationship should progress at a week, a month, a year, ten years) and these scripts are incredibly, frustratingly powerful. It’s hard to break away from them. But the reason I think I finally feel ease in this relationship is that I just decided not to care. What do I want from my relationship? Well, I have some ideas, but I’m not stuck on them. I want us to buy the dog more cakes. I want to show more gratitude. I want to take a break from telling large audiences I love this guy, but I’m not hung up on that one.

59 thoughts on “On anniversaries

  1. YES to the people-pleasing reflection! I am coming to the same conclusion: that putting my own happiness on hold (to the point that it takes a real effort for me to recognize I’m even doing it) in order to make someone else happy a) makes me kind of boring, even to myself, and b) isn’t even what the person I am trying to please actually wants. But man, it’s been reinforced since birth, and is a really hard one to crack!

  2. Funny things anniversaries. I still celebrate the anniversary of meeting my ex partner, because even though we are no longer together, I will always be grateful for how he made my life better. When we were together, we didn’t celebrate because the day we met was also the anniversary of the day his wife had died a few years before. Funny things anniversaries.
    Looking forward to your next blog, love Alice x

  3. I don’t like the commercialization of anniversaries. It makes it all feel so forced. “Oh, it’s your anniversary. Are you going out to dinner? Have a cocktail?” Now why does it all have to be about food and drink? Public celebrating and spending money. Several years ago my husband asked the inevitable, “What do you want to do for our anniversary?” I said let’s take a walk. Let’s just you and me walk out into the mountains, climb a hill, lay down in the grass, stare at the sky and remember. Let’s just hold hands and remember. Let’s just let those memories take us to a private place and create more memories that only we can share.
    Well, not exactly a Hallmark way of celebrating, but………….

    • Here here. Love your idea. So much of our experiences these days are polished just right for an impressive Facebook or Instagram post. Very little is just for ourselves to experience privately.

  4. Great read. Why do we need a special day to celebrate?? I like a good celebration and presents…but I was once the we need to make this special kind of girl. In my now 5 year relationship…I’m more…oh was it our anniversary the other day? We put more emphasis on appreciating day to day things. And just for us… No social Twitter space of face advertising

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  7. I was in a 2 year relationship with this guy that didn’t like to celebrate (we just broke up, like 2 week ago BTW full disclosure, and we broke up because he didn’t see a future with me). I was listening to your TED talk and felt so identified because he never gave me any kind of guarantee. I’m a positive optimistic person, I’m a natural nurturer and naturally kind, also very enthusiastic. I thought that if I did my part, if I was great then he would be great too. He would do things I’d like (and I did communicate it to him, I did say what I wanted). I celebrated our anniversary and he was like “why do we have to do this?” and I didn’t have an answer then and it hurt… but I like what your partner said. In my gut, that is what I wanted to say: “I want to celebrate us, I want to celebrate us together because this is special”. I didn’t want the rom-com anniversary celebration, I just wanted us together enjoying each other and celebrating together… not the whole cynical approach.
    And yes, I need to stop with the people pleasing. I do thing sometimes I’m open to new experiences because I like to grow and explore… but I need to recognize when its just people pleasing.

  8. Absolutely loved reading this article! Being a young reader.. I can relate to this whole idea of pleasing people.. It’s something I’m trying to get out of, it’s not healthy because you’re prioritising them over you, over your own happiness.. And it should be you before them, otherwise how can you say you’re happy? Trying to please other people has caused so much damage for myself.. Hence I’m trying to focus on myself, rather than the rest!

  9. Celebrating anniversaries has always seemed a little saccharine and unnatural to me as well. In truth, reaching a milestone like that is special in itself but feeling obligated to celebrate with a fancy dinner, romantic night, or gifts seems to cheapen it. I love that you noted your tendency to ‘please’ others–to be the one to watch him do cool stuff and wait for him to love you back. I’ve had this revelation as well and am still working on identifying and calling myself out on those tendencies. I may not have any super great talents but I think I’m pretty cool, and even though I think someone else is pretty cool and I support that, it’s no reason to bypass my interests and hobbies to make them happy. In many past relationships I’ve ended up realizing that my partner didn’t know me at all; and that’s likely more my fault than it is his.

    I truly enjoy your writing and am so glad I’ve found your blog!

  10. Love the article . These days it’s almost a competition on who can celebrate it better . And really we have dragged simple moments of life into these glamorous commercial events.

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  13. on a related note to people pleasing, when you let go of the idea that a relationship is about pleasing the other or expecting the other person to make you happy, how do you rebuild your criteria for a partner? You know it is not their job to make you happy, so how do you pick someone? You pick someone whom you know will do their best not to get in the way of making yourself happy? This is one conundrum I’ve yet to decipher

  14. More than the anniversary topic, which was great, the idea of scripts really hit home for me. Now in an extended relationship and as a woman of “that” age, people keep asking when we’re going to get married. Logically, I know we’re in no rush and we have a good thing going right now. But I still fill caught in the in-between of scripts and reality. You aren’t kidding when you say they’re “incredibly, frustratingly powerful.”

  15. Because life is so short and not guaranteed I am one of those believers that after spending 12 committed months with a person what is the intent; on both sides. I find myself asking what do I want need or desire from this person if this is indefinite and what am I willing to sacrificially give in return. I don’t like wasting my time so I need to define intentions at this point. It may or may not be marriage. It maybe let’s agree to revisit this depends in another year or something else. As long as we are both on the same page neither is emotionally stringing the other along; that’s IF you have expectations. Milestones in relationships are important. We hear so much about break ups and people doing each other wrong that even this blog after 1 successful year is very refreshing! Happy Anniversary Kristin- it’s a bigger deal than many may think💕 Chanel

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  18. Wow, best post on love, life, commitments, and keeping up with societies ideas of a relationship. I am reblogging this! I am single now after 25 years of mostly misery. He was abusive. But, in this post you talk about being a people pleaser as far as what people think you should be doing and such. Well, that was me and that is also called offically co-dependency they say anyway. When I left my ex everyone said I needed to work on my co dependency issues. I really just knew I was tired of pleasing people. Glad to have made that clear it has taken me four long years to be single and work on myself and have no committed relationship. Right this moment I don’t see love for me again. And I am really at peace with that. Because I don’t want to worry about pleasing another person. If I happen upon a hunka a hunka burning love then he will accept me and my flaws and allow me the room to still grow. I hope he would anyway my point is I also have in mind what a relationship with me might look like if I happen upon it that is. LOL ok now I am babbling. You made so many great points to even me the middle aged single woman not looking for love. Job well done at reaching all kinds of readers with this. Happy blogging!

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  21. You put a lot of thought into this concept, and what it may lead to — for example, behaving in a “typical” or “expected” way on your anniversary translates into how we’re supposed to behave/expect our whole relationship to be. I think in a lot of ways you’re right. There were some things you mentioned that I really agreed with — like knowing just what meant your individual relationship is serious, comfortable, etc. It’s different for every couple — and really, each person. Since there are always two people in a relationship, we can’t want just what we want — or just want to please the other person and neglect ourselves. I definitely agree that “following a script” is really no indicator of when or how things will become committed, easier, or anything. Real life is never so predictable. Good work on this.

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  23. If you are truly in love with someone you want to please them, it just comes naturally. You shouldn’t have to think about it. If you say you have adopted the I don’t care attitude, I guess each of you being roommates is enough for now? Sorry, just how I feel about it. Sometimes we just need to take a step back like you have and take another look like you have. Good Luck and happier days ahead my friend.

  24. All this talk about anniversaries is fine and there is nothing really wrong in talking about it in so many different ways based on one’s individual experience and perception – except that it makes real sense only when there is a genuine feeling of love between two people-who love each other for no other reason than that they really love each other; without unreasonable expectations of any kind in life from each other(something rare indeed in present times). But without this core element of enduring love (a term that is now perhaps as antiquated as the dinosaur, or the mastodon)-anniversaries have become quite insipid – ritualistic in celebration- with really no meaning – just an empty exercise of a make-believe activity to fool others and oneself that apparently as is well in a relationship. Its like a dried up water melon or an orange without any juice. However, I believe – and have also experienced that one can be married for decades(37 years as I was-before my wife died of cancer), without putting any undue pressure or any kind of expectations on each other and be equally happy under all situations – without making a fuss and show of ostentatious anniversaries – that are basically meant for other people’s consumption (may be to impress them/) – rather than for one’s own enduring pleasure and satisfaction.

  25. Absolutely loved reading this article! Being a young reader.. I can relate to this whole idea of pleasing people.. It’s something I’m trying to get out of, it’s not healthy because you’re prioritising them over you, over your own happiness..

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  29. About the people pleasing. I believe in love, that doing things that makes the other happy does come naturally, but I think there is something different that should be avoided. Believing you can be what _makes_ another person happy. I think there is a lot to be said about owning your own happiness as individuals and complimenting each other, not being the source of it.

  30. I dislike how people expect you to buy/receive expensive items. My first anniversary was really sweet, but me and my husband are not very good at romance. We try but alas we aren’t millionaires or very good at surprises. We tried to go out to eat at a nice restaurant (because that’s what your suppose to do right?) well I refused to wait 2 hours for a table. It wasn’t happening. So we ordered to go and went to a park to eat in the truck. It wasn’t a lot of flashy stuff. I didn’t receive a super expensive item that I would make all my friends jealous with on my Instagram- it was just us.

  31. Wow, I connected with this piece so much it feels like I wrote it myself. I love what you have to say on people-pleasing in a relationship – that’s something I’m focusing on right now. Very well written and thoughtful.

  32. Very real. I don’t understand anniversaries either. I feel it’s more important to be happy all round then put on some over the top gesture once a year. Probably a bit like christmas. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  33. LOVE this post 🙂 I’m not married or in any kind of serious relationship at the moment, but to watch others with an “outsider looking in” perspective, I never understood what the anniversary fuss is all about. It’s truly not about extravagantes, its about being content with the little, meaningful things with each other. Beautiful words

  34. “But duration is rarely the best indicator of a relationship’s success.” This rings true to me. I am in a serious relationship now but no plans of getting married yet. I love the realistic,romantic and vocal approach of this post. Keep it up! 🙂

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  38. When it comes to pleasing ppl, i think it’s there in my blood…No matter how I despise myself for doing that, I’ll end up doing the same…It’s more of an instinct i guess…Though i feel like a fool after that…

  39. Celebration is what we make it. Binge watching netflix and eating pizza and/or sushi is how we choose to celebrate our anniversary. Whatever one chooses to make a celebration, is a celebration

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  41. I totally agree with the people pleasing. I think its one of the biggest things I struggle with. Sometimes im too busy pleasing people to really focus on the whole situation.

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